#EP Debate: We need to put the reins on Big Tobacco

| February 1, 2019

As always, the devil is in the details. That was the overall conclusion of a public hearing on the illicit tobacco trade in Europe organized by MEP Cristian Silviu Bușoi in the European Parliament on January 29th.  Bușoi has emerged as one of the most vocal MEPs in the on-going fight to decouple the European decision making process from the influence of tobacco companies, placing himself squarely at odds with the more relaxed attitude of the European Commission. For while much headway has been made in reining in the tobacco industry, recent efforts to further clamp down on the illicit tobacco trade could be derailed by Big Tobacco.

 

More than 50 participants, such as EC officials and public health advocates, attended the meeting. One MEP, who was not present but distributed a statement at the meeting, was Michèle Rivasi (Member of the Green Group from France). A shot across the bow of the EC, the document strongly criticised the European Commission for failing to respect the demands of civil society to establish surveillance systems for the illicit trade in cigarettes that were strictly independent of tobacco producers.

These surveillance systems are currently riddled with loopholes, which could end up enabling the parallel trade in cigarettes that cheats EU members of billions in taxes. “We are talking about tax evasion in the order of €20 billion, that the EU could claw back in lost tax revenues if it were to successfully clamp down on this illegal trade,” said Dr BUŞOI.

Rivasi’s position hews closely to a wider discussion regarding the proper implementation of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Protocol on Illicit Trade. This document, which the EU has ratified, mandates the implementation of strict anti-money laundering mechanisms, stringent licensing and due diligence mechanisms, as well as the creation of a track and trace (T&T) system for cigarettes that is fully independent from Big Tobacco. Such a system would deal a deathblow to both the parallel and illicit trade.

However, the implementation of the FCTC Protocol has not been without controversy within the EU – prompting health advocates to argue that the Protocol is not compatible with the EU’s own Tobacco Products Directive, which allows a degree of influence for tobacco companies in the implementation of the T&T system.

In fact, as was pointed out in the debate, the International Tax Stamp Association (ITSA) has filed a case before the European Court of Justice, arguing that the EU derived regulation is in breach of the FCTC. ITSA’s position is that any T&T system should be placed under the exclusive control of the EC and should neither “performed by nor delegated to the tobacco industry”.

ITSA is not alone. Several other participants, such as Dr Francisco Rodrigues Lozano, the President of the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) and Anca Toma Friedlander, the Director of the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP), supported that position. Both organization have been highly vocal in the fight against the influence of tobacco manufacturers on the decision making process. The ENSP is committed to bringing smoking rates down to under 5%, while the SFP is working to promote tobacco control and to ensure the correct implementation of the FCTC as a way of remedying the weaknesses of the current EU system.

Luk Joossens, a leading anti-tobacco advocate, pointed to a list of recommendations approved by the SFP and the European Cancer Leagues regarding the technical aspects of the T&T system that would ensure compliance with the FCTC – but that have not been adopted by the EC. In his telling, the unique identifiers of the T&T system should be linked to security features and the data storage providers should not be associated with the tobacco industry. Allen Gallagher from the University of Bath Department for Health singled out Atos, a French company that has been appointed by the EC as unique data storage provider, as having ties to the tobacco industry that render it incompatible with the FCTC.

Leszek Bartlomiejczyk of the ENSP struck a similar tone. “We need to control the whole legal supply chain,” he said, “and this involves the competent authorities in controlling resources, the production, the physical movement and the trade in tobacco products.” He also emphasized the need for national databases for member states to have their own data control systems. “We must have comprehensive solutions by licensing all elements of the supply chain from the manufacturer to the retailer,” he concluded.

Dr Filip Borkowski, Deputy Head of Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-general for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), opened his statement by rebuffing some of the accusations and defending the EC’s system for cross-border health and tobacco control. He claimed that the EU system is in full compliance with the FCTC protocol. “We think our system is up to the job required by the terms of the Directive,” he told the Parliamentary Hearing.

Referring to the shortcomings of the T&T system identified by some participants – such as Mr Joossens’ comments on its incompatibility with the WHO Protocol – Mr Borkowski mentioned that the Tobacco Products Directive and all its provisions will be subject to a review in 2021. The SFP had written about this in 2017, in the wake of the Commission’s adoption of the act, which foresaw the modification of the EU system to close its loopholes and bring it in line with the FCTC protocol.

Concluding the debate, Bușoi said that he intends to push for a review of the Tobacco Products Directive in the next legislature after the May elections for the EP. It is for this reason that he initiated a consultation in 2018 and organized Tuesday’s debate. The objective would be to strengthen efforts to fight against the parallel trade of tobacco products in Europe and bring forward comprehensive new proposals to this effect.

 

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Category: A Frontpage, Cigarettes, EU, Health, Tobacco